High demand for charcoal in urban locations is hastening deforestation in Mua- Livulezi Forest Reserve in Dedza District. THOMAS KACHERE has found that those involved in the illegal activities have little or nothing to frighten them.
Huge quantities of charcoal daily leave Mua-Livulezi Reserve as locals frantically pursue ways of surviving in hard economic times.
Their customers are businesspeople who ferry the loads to Lilongwe and surrounding areas, leaving huge stretches of the 12,644-hectare forest, gazetted in 1924, without cover.
Huge billows of smoke above trees in the reserve speak volumes about the rapid race to devastation.
Charcoal producer, Ephraim Robert, from Golomoti Village, near the reserve, admits the Forestry Department is not that harsh on those carelessly felling trees.
“They know that is what we depend on to make a living. Once they locate us, they confiscate our equipment which we reclaim later at a fee,” Robert says.
He would rather have the trees in the reserve depleted than search for other means of making money.
Apparently, the charcoal trade is big business with ever-ready customers willing to offer considerably better prices.
Officials at the forest reserve admit charcoal production is the woodland’s biggest problem, but insist they are trying to put it under control.
Michael Joseph Njala— whose role is to ensure the forest reserve is well protected—says they have been carrying out intensive patrols despite that the charcoal problem persists.
He says the engagement of Malawi Defence Force soldiers in protecting the reserve has lessened the problem and that it would further drop significantly if demand eased in Lilongwe.
“Apparently, a bag of charcoal that fetches around K2,000 here is sold at K7,000 in Lilongwe. The market sustains the production. Charcoal production will stop if there is no market for the commodity,” Njala states.
Locals in villages surrounding the forest reserve have taken it upon themselves to protect the wooded area but their efforts are frustrated by those from faraway locations who still sneak into the forest to produce charcoal.
Dorothy Chauma is among those sparing their time to patrol the reserve.
“It pains us to see that, after our patrol sessions end, people from other villages go in to cut the trees. It really deflates us,” Chauma says.
In the rare event that the patrollers capture the charcoal producers, they confiscate their materials and warn them against returning to the reserve.
“But they seem to be very clever and well connected. The moment we call off our patrol, they tip each other and invade the forest. It is sad,” Chauma says.
Senior Chief Kachindamoto of Dedza, in whose jurisdiction the reserve lies, is equally concerned with the rate at which the trees are disappearing.
The crisis prompted her to establish a committee to look into the issue and counter massive deforestation.
“When I went into the forest to see for myself, I was shocked to see how charcoal producers were destroying trees. I then called for an emergency meeting and reminded traditional leaders in my area about by-laws which prohibit careless cutting down of trees,” Kachindamoto said.
The local rulers who resisted the by-laws were sanctioned in various ways including suspension. But the destruction continues.
And Deputy Director of Forestry Teddie Kamoto is “concerned” that despite that, six years ago, his department started engaging communities around the reserve on how they can conserve it by shifting to other income generating activities, the initiative seems to have flopped.
“We will be engaging the communities through another programme so that they have alternatives for charcoal production. They need other economic activities to reduce pressure on the forest,” he said.
Kamoto further indicated that the amended Forestry Act, which now permits forestry officers to carry firearms in the line of duty, will help the Forestry Department in enforcing the law.
A professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, Nic Cheeseman, believes the historical deforestation problem is sometimes propitiated by leaders who seek votes and are, therefore, reluctant to be “harsh” on the voters even when they commit crimes.
Cheeseman further feels the roots of the deforestation problem are deeper than often presented—the unmet basic needs of people.
He says Malawi needs to create cheaper alternatives so that people do not have to fall back on charcoal, which is a major source of energy in urban locations.
On his part, fuel technologies specialist Admore Chiumia wants alternatives to illegal charcoal such as pellets, sustainable charcoal, briquettes and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) promoted and scaled up for more households to access them.
“The promotion of improved charcoal stoves is also a feasible option in terms of efficient consumption of biomass in urban households,” Chiumia says.
He adds that most households fail to adopt the use of LPG due to issues of cost, perceptions that gas cylinders can explode and unavailability of the fuel in urban neighbourhoods.
On top of popularising the alternatives, Chiumia says, there is need to strengthen regulation and enforcement to deal with all actors involved in the supply chain.
In the meantime, charcoal producers who invade Mua-Livulezi Forest Reserve have little to scare them out of their illegal trade largely sustained in towns and cities.